Never Lose Your Roots: Islam in St. Petersburg

Source: Daniel HJorth

Only faith and return to their origins help them to overcome sorrow.

She takes a deep breath and offers up a quick prayer not to be hit by a car on the bustling street; the woman secures one last fold of her head scarf around her chin and hastily crosses Kronversky Prospect. Safely on the other side, she pushes open a massive wooden door and falls into another world…

Away from the hustle of the city, this other world is like a pure pearl for local Muslims in St. Petersburg. The St. Petersburg Mosque is the main place in the city which helps Muslims preserve their connection with Islam, as well as understand, save, and exercise their religious identity. Here, thousands of Muslims are not only praying and celebrating their yearly occasions, but also learning how to read the Quran in Arabic. In this regard, the mosque also acts as a place for spiritual education by organizing special Arabic lessons on the weekend.

On the Way to Islam

Firaya Rashitova is one of the activists among Tatar Muslims living in St. Petersburg. She and her colleagues are organizing various religious events that help other Muslims understand the Quran correctly. She herself grasped the words of Allah only due to the St. Petersburg Mosque.

Born in Soviet Kazan, Firaya wasn’t able to practice her faith in the traditional way in the former communist state. She also never learned to read the Quran in the original Arabic language:

“During atheistic USSR times, my family hid the fact that we were practicing Islam. Of course, we were keeping traditional Muslim fast and cooking special food, but we didn’t know how to pray properly and we didn’t wear a head scarf,” Firaya remembers.

The only member of Firaya’s family, who was lucky enough to live in accordance with the traditions, was her great-grandmother. She stayed with her grandchildren only on big Muslim holidays. The grandmother would pray before sunrise on these days and it was something like a miracle for little Firaya.

But little did Firaya know that she was foreordained to accomplish these same wonders. Despite living in the “Venice of the North” throughout the 70s, Firaya visited the St. Petersburg Mosque for the first time in 1999. That year, Mufti Jafyar Ponchaev, a religious leader in St. Petersburg, invited several teachers from Islamic states to conduct Quran lessons in the mosque and preach original, peaceful Islam. Firaya liked studying in the course and, despite the years, still keeps in touch with some of the group mates. Take for instance the Muslim couple from Samara, who came searching for peace of mind in the mosque after the death of their son.

“Only faith and return to their origins helped them to overcome sorrow. After those Quran courses they even built a small mosque in honor of their son,” Firaya remembers.

Photo by Daniel Hjorth
Source: Daniel Hjorth

After a couple years of the Arabic courses, Firaya learned to read the Quran without any mistakes. Then she started teaching the basics of Islam in order to help St. Petersburg Muslims understand their identity and traditions. It turned out to be popular in “Muslim Russia” to invite someone who knows the Quran well to family events to read surahs (chapters of the Quran) aloud. Usually after a surah reading, the preacher is invited to hold a kind of a lecture on how people should live by the rules of their religion.

At this point, Firaya suddenly closed her eyes and started to sing something very loudly and melodiously, “Don’t be afraid. Now I will read to you the main surah of the Quran, its heart, which is called ‘Believe in Allah’.”

Firaya is convinced that after getting to know Islam during the courses at the St. Petersburg Mosque was what revived a sense of purpose in her religion. Her new religious identity gave her harmony. Everything fell into place. She started reading the Quran regularly, has learned how to be patient, and realised the value of family and home — the main strength of her religion.

We spill lamb’s blood to prevent other bloodshed.

She also started keeping up with other Muslim traditions such as the sacrifice of honour for a new life. When her grandchildren were born, Firaya went to Tatarstan and killed a lamb on the altar at the bottom of Hujalar tavy mountain. “We spill lamb’s blood to prevent other bloodshed. I understand it is controversial, but we genuinely believe in it,” Firaya explains.

About Islamophobia

When the conversation turned to radical Islamists, the amiable Tatar woman’s face suddenly darkened. “ISIS and other radicals play hell with the Quran. They are playing on Muslims’ heartstrings. Those “shahids” easily end it all on behalf of the selfish terrorism industry, not Islam. “Real Muslims should dedicate their life to sacred duties,” she said thrumming on the table. Firaya also noted that false Islam leads to chaos and downfall, while real religion appeals to the better side of our nature. It explains the value of modesty and virtue, not empty-headed violence.

Back to the Mosque

Safely on the other side, the women with the headscarf tightly tucked under her chin pushes open a massive wooden door and falls into another world…

…beyond these doors, a sober, middle-aged man is sitting opposite to the preaching hall. He is responsible for the fundraising needs of Muslims living in Crimea, a world connected by the faith of Islam.

“We are giving a hand to all Muslims of our country. We are trying to help Crimeans to save their mosques, so they can let our brothers and sisters continue their life in a pure Islamic way and not to lose their identity,” explains an attendant of the Mosque’s secretariat.

Secretariat is a small, but very wealthy-looking room where two men sit offering blessings to families and visitors of the mosque. One of the men is now praying for all Muslims entering this room; he does this without asking for payment or any contributions.
Firaya, devotees of the Mosque, organizers of Islamic events in St. Petersburg and all other Muslims who have dedicated their life to Islam share a strong, common belief – helping others. To help others is to save and preserve their religious identity and to feel connected to Allah.

The piece was originally published in the November 2015 edition of 1Line.

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